Release of tens of thousands of microfibers from discarded face masks under simulated environmental conditions

Pengfei Wu, Jiangpeng Li, Xiao Lu, Yuanyuan Tang*, Zongwei Cai*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

52 Citations (Scopus)


While mechanical abrasion by water and sediment is a primary and critical step in weathering process, the upsurge of discarded face masks will undoubtedly become a potential source of micro-/nanofibers owing to the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pneumonia. However, effects of mechanical abrasion on discarded face masks have neither been seriously addressed nor understood. Therefore, we conducted a simulated experiment to explore abundance, size distribution and morphology of microfibers released from common, surgical and face filtering piece (FFP) masks after mechanical abrasion. Technologies such as Fourier transform infrared spectrometry, fluorescence microscopy, scanning electron microscopy, and confocal laser scanning microscopy were used. Results showed that the abundance of released microfibers followed order of surgical > common > FFP in both water and sediment environments, and the maximum abundance reached 272 ± 12.49 items per square centimeter of mask (items·cm−2) after sediment abrasion. Taking surgical mask for further investigation, the length of released fiber was observed to vary from 47.78 μm to 3.93 mm, and 72.41–89.58% of the total number of released microfibers fell in the range of 0.1–1 mm. However, microfibers with a very small length (1–100 μm) can occupy 0.09–13.59% of the total number of released fibers in sediment environment. The roughness of fiber surface after sediment abrasion was successively increased. Furthermore, the morphology analysis showed significant changes with countless cracks and many prominent protrusions on fiber surface after sediment abrasion. The cracks and protrusions may further accelerate mask decomposition, thereby potentially resulting in the adsorption of other contaminants and the release of self-containing chemicals. This study provides a valuable database of microfibers released from discarded face masks at the primary but critical stage, and further contributes knowledge on environmental impact of discarded personal protective equipment due to COVID-19.

Original languageEnglish
Article number150458
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Early online date28 Sept 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2022

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution

User-Defined Keywords

  • Confocal microscopy
  • COVID-19
  • Face masks
  • Mechanical abrasion
  • Microfiber release


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